On the first glimpse of actual snowfall this season, it turns out it was mostly blustery snow hurling through the sunlight air. It also turns out my friend Y-chan and I already had plans to go to Yuushien Japanese Garden to see the peonies which bloom in cold weather, called Kanbotan. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ve probably noticed that Y-chan and I go to Yuushien a lot. You might have also noticed it’s very well-known for peonies.

After all, you can see things like this all year round:



The best time to go, of course, is when the peonies are in their natural blooming season around the end of April and beginning of May. The Peony Festival is right time for Golden Week, and no matter how many holiday travels there are, it’s totally worth the crowd to go see the thousands and thousands and thousands of blossoms of hundreds of varieties blooming not only on the Yuushien premises, but all around Daikonshima Island. I’m afraid I cannot share the fragrance in the air with you, but I can show you pictures.

One of the other big peonies periods is when the Kanbotan are out in the brisk air, protected from wind and snow by charming straw huts. The last time we went was near the end of February so we missed a lot of them, but this time we went in January and got to see not only the blooms, but the blooms with a little bit of snow to set the atmosphere.





Yuushien also hosts work from Japanese and international garden artists, and from January 15 to March 31, 2016, there was/is large collaborations with Shogo Kariyazaki throughout the garden.

The indoor exhibit space felt a little like walking into a Tim Burton movie.

Speaking of peonies, please allow me to introduce my Paeonia suffruticosa Seidai, Yatsuko!

Seidai are a regular spring bloomer, but she's been peaking through early!

Seidai are a regular spring bloomer, but she’s been peeking through early!

I won her at my department’s New Years party, and I’m quite pleased. I named her Yatsuko because the Daikonshima (as well as its small neighboring island Eshima, home to the “scariest” Eshima Bridge) makes up a district of Matsue called Yatsuka. Peonies can be very long-lived plants if not transplanted too many times, and so long as everything goes smoothly to try to get her past US customs, she might do well in Colorado’s climate. After all, peonies need a very cold winter in order to bloom in spring. Matsue exports its prized peonies throughout the world, especially to places like Russian and Holland and Taiwan, and I’m very happy to have one of my own now.

I just really hope I don’t kill her. There’s a good reason I got to Yuushien to appreciate the professionals’ work.

I’ve blatantly borrowed this title from one of Lafcadio Hearn‘s most famous essays, published in The Atlantic in 1892. A lot of the essay is a detailed and flowery (ha!) description of his garden at his second residence in Matsue–preserved now as it was in Hearn’s day–and is quoted at Japanese gardens around the world, and at least two of which, in New Orleans and Tramore, bear his namesake.

I like Japanese gardens, but I don’t think I can–or would–go into such detail as Lafcadio Hearn. Looking back at this text, so characteristic of his style with his rich descriptions, heavy amount of information, cultural fancies, and fascination for even the lowliest of life forms–or forms that have taken on a life of their own–I can see how he was still in his honeymoon period in Japan when he wrote this. As much glowing praise as his prose gets from Japanese readers and criticism he gets from cynical Western scholars, the fact of the matter is that Lafcadio Hearn really enjoyed that garden in a time when he really enjoyed Japan after he had been anticipating enjoying Japan for quite some time. Furthermore, the words he wrote about Japanese gardens have long survived him and reached the sensitive sides of people’s souls throughout the world.

Perhaps my appreciation for Japanese gardens is not as honed and sensitive as Hearn’s, but you do appreciate them more as you learn more about them and the thought behind their designs. The basic idea that both an expansive Japanese garden like that of the Adachi Museum of Art and a tiny bonsai garden are meant to mimic a natural landscape is already enough to take you from one stage of appreciation to another, and the little details I’ve picked up about traits of Izumo style gardens, such as the elevated rock stepping-stones to keep the hems of kimono more dry in the rain and snow and the use of black pines, give me little things to enjoy looking for when I visit new gardens.

The San’in region is home to a few famous ones, even the garden of Kasuien Minami, a fancy ryokan in the Tamatsukuri Onsen area, has one of the top ranked gardens in Japan. My personal favorite is Yuushien Japanese Garden, famous for its array of peonies (and generally being a gorgeous setting for a stroll any time of year). I went out to see the peony festival again this year with a friend, and the fragrance of the thousands and thousands of peony blossoms, especially those covering the surface of the pond, was once again something that could have induced sweet spring dreams.

大根島

Afterward, my friend and I hopped over the Eshima Bridge (that one that looks scary and now has a temporary parking lot just for the people who came out to photograph it) to Tottori to do some shopping, and in the later afternoon hours my friend decided we should stop by her grandmother’s house to get pictures of the kirishima (a type of rhododendron) blooming in her garden. I’ve been to her grandmother’s house a few times before, and I’ve seen the garden, but never really looked at it.

It occurred to me on this visit just how quintessentially Japanese my friend’s family is. I have the pleasure of visiting every few months and have enjoyed seasonal pleasures such as youkan ice cream from Kiyomizu Temple (the Yasugi one, not the Kyoto one), picking home-grown shiitake mushrooms in the forest, viewing three full sets of Girl’s Day dolls, and so on. At her grandmother’s house, we always go straight down the hall to the guest room. The hall has a wood floor, to the right are glass doors and windows looking out on the garden, to the left are the sliding doors to the airy tatami room filled with natural light. There is a vase set on a shelf at one end, and a wooden structure at the far corner of the hallway, and they are both decorated with a few seasonal flowers.

The guest room has a wide, but low table that follows the natural features of the wood, holes and everything, but glossy and warm in tones like the rest of the wood in the house. There are statues and vases and such decorating the wall opposite the garden, and a folding screen with a bird and a few seasonal flowers that would be blooming right around the same time in real life. My friend’s grandmother wasn’t expecting me, and she’s in the adjoining room laying out a few extra sweets to go with the snack she had already prepared to go with the tea. As usual, she’s got everything ready to offer us both the customary two cups of matcha.

And, as usual, we all chill out in the guest room and chat and enjoy our tea and snacks, with no electronic distractions or even any noticeable clock to take our minds away from the moment.

Speaking of timing, we were too late to see the red kirishima bushes in full bloom, as they, like many other flowers, were early this year. Nonetheless, there are still splatters of coral color among the green leaves, and for the greater part of our conversation, a white butterfly with black lines has been ecstatically sampling and savoring them. My friend is none the less very disappointed that we missed full bloom, as apparently that is one of her favorite times to see that garden she’s been visiting with her sisters and cousins for as far back as she can remember. The two of them show me an old photo of them out there, and reminisce about times in the garden, and how it had already been two decades or so since they replaced the koi pond with gravel so that none of the small children would fall in.

The garden, like the guest room, is in meticulously cared for condition. The rocks and gravel are clean in the sunlight, the trees are shapely and full. While I’m still enjoying the sight of the feasting butterfly, their focus shifts to the lush maple tree, fluttering its young, bright yellow-green leaves in the wind. The shadows the leaves make against the large rock behind it are lively.

I’m still at the table while they go to window, and her grandmother kneels in the hallway while my friend borrows her grandfather’s sandals to go get a better look at the maple leaves. Their silhouettes and expressions in the warm afternoon light make me smile at how picturesque they are, and then her grandmother invites me over to enjoy the view and the breeze. They’re both indeed very nice, about as nice as I always pictured this fairy land I dreamed about for years before ever visiting. I’ve been a guest in many other quintessentially Japanese abodes before, including during my own honeymoon period of sorts, but having spent a lot more time around Japan now I have a very different way of looking at this country and culture now. The Japan that I–and other foreigners, and even Japanese people themselves–love to romanticize about does exist, but it’s not a part of everyone’s daily life. For many, Japanese gardens and serving tea to guests, or even having tatami mats is not even a thought in their given or chosen lifestyles. While there are parts of culture that are distinctly Japanese, they are not deeply relevent to many Japanese people, just as much as things like hamburgers and college basketball are major parts of American culture but not ones deeply relevant to me. This is neither positive nor negative, it’s simply things as they are.

Still, I enjoyed being in such a quintessentially Japanese setting, speaking in Japanese with Japanese friends, an experience that would be rare if I lived elsewhere. I could have enjoyed the sunshine and the greenery and the fresh air in a number of other places, or enjoyed snacks and company in any variety of tastes and cultures. Perhaps what really felt so refreshing this time was that I took the chance to notice it, even if not the same level of detail that Hearn observed his Japanese garden.

Right before we left, the butterfly was making friends with another like it, and they fluttered further and further away from the ending kirishima flowers. Just another passing moment, never to be captured again in any haiku, photography, essay, or blog post.

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You probably don’t need to be a health nut to know that ginseng, a human-shaped root full of ginsenosides, is an expensive health product, lauded for its stimulant properties and powering up the immune system–among other systems. Although there is American Ginseng, it doesn’t pack quite the same punch as the Asian variety, commonly known as Korean Ginseng.

I bring this up, of course, because it doesn’t only grow in Korea. Ginseng production is big here in the San’in region, too.

Originally cultivated on Daikonshima (a large island on Lake Nakaumi) in the 17th century, it was sold through an operation lead by the samurai running the Matsue domain as part of an economic recovery plan for the region, it was at its height of popularity around the 1830’s and 1840’s, and it later became a privatized enterprize. When the samurai rain things, they imported ginseng and grew them in the volcanic soils of Daikonshima (also known for the peonies the volcanic soil is so good for). All of the ginseng produced was collectively processed and prepared for sale. This was known as Unshuu Ginseng* (unshuu ninjin, though ninjin is also confusingly the word for not-so-special carrots), known both then and now as a high quality, well-recognized variety. Shimane is still one of the top three producers of ginseng in Japan today.

Mural of Matsue history inside Matsue Castle

*Unshuu (雲州) takes the character for “clouds” from Izumo’s name (出雲) and combines it for the word for “province.” You find these –shuu names for a lot of old provinces throughout Japan. In Japanese, the readers for the characters might change depending how it is combined with other characters.

Why is ginseng production such a big deal? Setting it’s historical popularity as a health supplement aside, growing ginseng is not an easy venture. It takes six years for the ginseng plant to reach maturity enough for the roots to be harvested, and the plant sucks the soil dry of its nutrients–it can take 20 years for that soil for to be suitable for cultivation use again! If you’re a small-time farmer just trying to scrape by, growing this is not a effective use of your resources and time.

That’s where Yuushien Garden comes in for modern day Unshuu Ginseng production. I’ve mentioned this garden many times before as it is my favorite in the region and its peonies are amazing, but I’ve always glossed over the ginseng end of things. But on a not so crowded day, it’s fairly likely you’ll be served a free sample of ginseng tea before you even make it to the ticket booth.

In addition to tea, you can get this supplement in a variety of forms–in soap and beauty products, powder form, even sake! They’re available at various points throughout the walk-through garden course, most notably at the Unshuu Ginseng museum at the end of the course.

It comes in highly potent, sticky form!

Although these are in a form you can purchase and take home with you, I was very excited when I was interpreting for a delegation one time and we got to go to Yuushien for lunch–I had always been intrigued by the ginseng tempura, and I’d finally get a chance to try it! That was not all, however–in the set course of inventive and decorative items they served us that day, they used ginseng in almost everything. I apologize that I did not take pictures that day, but suffice to say that I found it worth spending some extra money on to be able to have it again someday–this coming from someone who has very frequent kaiseki (very fancy multi-course meals) at ryokan around the city. This page is in Japanese and the pictures are small, but it might give you some idea. I can tolerate the tea, but I find the taste of ginseng much more pleasant in in a form you can eat.

That said, I still have yet to try to the ginseng ice cream the garden serves. Someday!

The attention hogs have demanded more sharing of their photos.

Following up on the previous entry, the winter peonies at Yuushien insisted on more photos to show off a little more of their splendor. In addition to the usual year-round displays of color and shape and winter peonyscapes with woven huts to protect them from snow, there is also a temporary exhibition on display until 3/31/2014 that is a collaboration between Holland’s imaginative and futuristic gardener Nico Wissing and Japan’s green magician Kazuyuki Ishihara.

Without further ado, enjoy Shimane’s prefectural flower, famous among peony enthusiasts around the world:


















I’ve got a lovely bunch of peonies, there they are a’standing in a row. Big ones, small ones, some as big as your—oh, who I am kidding, there are no small ones.

What do you get for venturing outside on a day like this? You get wet, that’s what.

Yuushien Garden is located on Daikonshima (otherwise known as the Yatsuka district of Matsue–now where have we heard that name before?), a island on Nakaumi, a brackish lake between Shimane and Tottori. When I hear “Yuushien” I think peonies. Okay, so sometimes I think of ginseng too, but I mostly think of peonies. After all, the sight and scent of 30,000 of them floating in the pond while thousands more were on display around the rest of the garden (and the rest of the island) was an unforgetable experience.

While no season can compare to full season, there are peonies blooming all year round at this garden, and the winter peonies (kan-botan) are a special sight from December through February. While peonies in Flower Language (hanakotoba) can mean royal style, riches and honor, pompousness, and (surprisingly) shyness, the winter peonies in particular have a noble, high class association. At Yuushien, these seasonal peonies have their own little straw huts to protect them from the weight of snow, and photographers flock to capture the bright blossoms against the white landscape.

I had no such luck. We had snowglobe like days during the week, but my Sunday at Yuushien was rain, rain, rain, rain.

I didn’t get to see the snowy scenery and rain is certainly not my favorite weather, but it did give me a very different view of the garden than I had only a very sunny, very crowded day last May during Golden Week (right around the height of the peony season). Rain brings out the textures in the garden landscape, especially in the ponds, moss, and volcanic rock that Daikonshima is made out of (and that’s why its soil is so good for peonies and ginseng).

Despite the general subdued tones of winter, there were still very vibrant, impressive peonies. In my years of studying East Asian cultures I have frequently heard them referred to like the Queen of the Flowers, and the Queen enjoys her spotlight in any weather. But, my dear Queen, there are so many other little things to notice in the sleepy garden winters! Can’t you let them have a little spotlight, too?

No? You really insist on photobombing, don’t you?

Setting the royal flower aside for a moment, let’s take a look at some of the rest of the rainy day views Yuushien provides in February.












Alright, Your Elegance, you haunty, flower, you! There will be more photos in your honor coming soon.

In the meantime, I’ll just wrap up with a statue we interpreted thus.

Another flower post as promised!

Yuushien is one of the most famous gardens in the San’in region (though the most famous would have to be the one at the Adachi Museum of Art located in nearby Yasugi). It is a Japanese-style garden for all seasons; a quiet space to listen to the sounds of the waterfalls, observe the seasonal trees and flowers, feed the fish, and collect your thoughts. That is, unless you go during Golden Week.




It’s not by simple coincidence that iris (aka “sweet flag”) season lines up with Golden Week. Read more on Fumiyaen‘s insightful blog.

Yuushien is located on Daikonshima (otherwise known as the Yatsuka district of Matsue), a island on Nakaumi, a brackish lake between Shimane and Tottori. It used to be a town of its own, and there is a unique dialect spoken only on that island with some influence from the surrounding Mihonoseki Peninsula, Sakaiminato, and general Izumo dialect. It was formed from volcanic rock and you can explore underground lava trails, and those familiar with Japanese cuisine will probably notice that it literally means “giant radish island” (大根島). While I’m sure they probably grow somewhere around there, the island is not actually known for daikon radishes.

Rather, the island was recorded in the 8th century Chronicles of Ancient Izumo as “octopus island” (’takoshima’ たこ島)(though this probably had more to do with someone bringing an octopus to the island than there actually being octopus in Nakaumi–squid are more popular around here!). It was given somewhat similar sounding kanji at some point (‘takushima’ 太根島), which gradually morphed into some similar kanji based on an alternate pronunciation of the aforementioned kanji (‘taikushima’ 大根島), and this was eventually misread as the pronunciation that is currently used today (‘daikonshima’ 大根島).

On of the other theories about the name origin is that it had some ties to what the island of volcanic soil is known for: ginseng! This was traded with Korea and other places back in the Edo era when Izumo province was in financial straits, and is still prized today (and easy to get your hands on).

But this post is not about ginseng, it is about flowers. The other thing Daikonshima is famous for is its peonies (‘botan’, ). The prefectural flower of Shimane, thousands upon thousands of them bloom all over the island, and they are highly prized by peony lovers all around the world. Yuushien is but a central location to see some 180 varieties in a single place, including many varieties that were cultivated on the island. There are always some kind of variety blooming on Yuushien, even in winter when the blooms are protected from the snow by little straw huts. For a few days during Golden Week, however, the pond is filled with over 30,000 blossoms. That’s only a fraction of all the blossoms within the garden at that time, much less within the entire island! As soon as you step into the garden, you might even notice the fragrance before the actual sight. Kudos to anyone who knows what I mean when I say I half-expected to meet Liu Mengmei! Peonies originally came to Japan from China, they just thrived and developed extremely well on this island. As it turns out, there is a Chinese style garden elsewhere on Daikonshima.


Besides vendors selling their own cultivated peonies all over the island during the Peony Festival, there is also an exhibition during this particular period of time, and you can use your garden admission ticket to vote for your favorite cleverly titled variety on display (by the way, foreign visitors get half-off admission to the garden all year round for only 300 yen).

“Old Mountain Lady”, but I wonder which one?

Without further ado, how about we just move on to a sampling of pictures?

Striped varieties were originally cultivated on Daikonshima.


Peonies are huge. Many blossoms seemed to be about the size of my head.





Yellow varieties are not as common, but there were plenty to be seen anyway.







It’s Kouyou season!

Kouyou (紅葉) literally means “red leaves,” and while maple leaves do tend to take center stage, there are plenty of shades of other colors to enjoy as well. I had a little free time yesterday so I took a walk around the castle grounds, and was very refreshed to see all the different colors and how the fallen yellow leaves contrast the black stones, and how the green and red leaves contrast the black castle, and how bright they all were against the grey sky. I took the time to take note of what kinds of trees were in which places so can look forward to seeing them again in future seasons. For now, there are still more colors to come–it’s nice that autumn takes its time here!

Kouyou is not simply of a matter of noticing the leaves are changing–Japan has nature-viewing down to a science.

As much as I like noticing the leaves throughout town, there are certain spots that are very well known as leaf-viewing spots (thank you, Luc, for assembling the list corresponding to this map!):

1. Kagikage Valley 鍵掛峠(かぎかけとうげ)
2. Mount Daisen Sky Resort 大山スキー場 (だいせんスキーじょう)
3. Kinmon Gate 金門 (きんもん)
4. Lake Ono 大野池(おおのいけ)
5. Sekka Valley 石霞渓(せっかけい)
6. Kiyomizu-dera Temple 清水寺(きよみずでら)
7. Yuushien Garden 由志園(ゆうしえん)
8. Matsue Castle Jozan Park 松江城山公園(まつえじょうざんこうえん)
9. Gakuen-ji Temple 鰐淵寺(がくえんじ)
10. Adachi Museum of Art 足立美術館(あだちびじゅつかん)
11. Tachikue Valley 立久恵狭(たちくえきょう)
12. Ichibata Yakushi Temple 一畑薬師(いちばたやくし)

While there are stunning pictures of these places around the net…


…I’m still fond of the little places nearby.